Experimentations in Extremes

Festival Daniou Artists-in-Residence 2017

Jennifer Liu violin

Khari Joyner cello

Robert Fleitz piano

Sammy Lesnick clarinet

Ariadne Greif soprano

The Festival Daniou exchanges Brittany’s countryside chapels for a surrealist New York City loft, with a rent estimate of $3,857 per month. Majestic jellyfish float on white-washed walls, a motorcycle revs in the alleyway below, and Wolfie, a fluffy Finnish Lapphund, prances on the wooden floor with leisurely dignity – his paws echo: “pit pat, pit pat.”

Simon Frisch, the festival co-director and son of Columbia music professor Walter Frisch, explains that the organization confronts the “idea of what is worth sharing” through “unusual repertoire.” Unorthodoxy lives in the program: paganism and eroticism oppose profound spirituality.

Fjóla Evans’s Reið – HagallBjarkan (2012-2013) launches the night. Ladies dressed in rustic garb spin on screen. Electronics rumble; they create an earthy texture appropriate for the film. Joyner, a former Columbia/Juilliard exchange student, executes perpetual pizzicatos. Evans, a cellist herself, percussivizes the instrument. The articulation drills holes into the terrestrial manifestation. An exposed vibrato in the cello’s stratosphere juxtaposes exhalations in the soprano-like electronics.

Tense waves evoke the sea. Intensity mounts, change is imminent. Joyner leaps, accentuates the higher partial. His resonance resounds. A lilting flute stumbles by. The country tune transforms, becomes border-line schizophrenic.

Sparkling electronics dominate the 3rd movement. A zombified bear disrupts the circular dance. Glistening vibrancy deifies the folk.

Ashkan Behzadi’s az Hoosh mi.. (2013) sets erotic Farsi poetry for soprano and violin. Sentences dangle incomplete, words fall off precipitously. Sexually-charged inhales mimic orgasmic gasps. Whispers stream from the soprano to her imagined lover. Primal desires crash against the violin’s harsh, realistic staccatos.

For this performance, Kaija Matīss, depicts a narrative program through film. A red light illumes and dims in time with the performers’ undulations. Close-ups of a female body surface. She pulls her lower lip slowly, displaying teeth and flesh. Dizziness boils.

The figure remains unstable, her full body never revealed. She disrobes, one layer at a time. When she slides her hands upward to remove her bra, the video suddenly cuts. The harsh break portrays the music’s intense halts. Lovers reach for language that always just eludes them.

Matīss envisions Behzadi’s music; they did not collaborate. When queried, Behzadi, a current DMA candidate at Columbia, approves of Matīss’s realization. He notes: “The piece is not mine anymore.” Post-publication, he loses ownership, thereby unveiling the work for artistic interpretation.

The music explores instrumental relations. Greif gulps, accelerated breaths leap from Liu’s bow. Euphoric bursts explode between performers. Swirling energy expands in space. Momentum tumbles toward desolate ravines. Individual differentiation dissolves – a disembodied sound world rises.

Behzadi explains how he sculpts the human voice. Soprano lines investigate the mouth as mechanism, the site of sound production. Unconventional sounds, such as sharp inhalations, result from his approach. Greif tells me that this performance practice tires the voice after repeated execution, but she does not show a trace of fatigue.

To conclude, a modern masterpiece: Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941). The quartet pendulates between creation and apocalypse: the beginning and end of time. Festival Daniou’s summer season centered on this work; the artist-in-residence ensemble performed it in the penultimate and final concerts. Tonight, they culminate their summer endeavors.

As introduction, Greif orates Messiaen’s textual commentary for each movement of the piece. Her declamation guides the listening experience, and creates distinct sectional divides.

“Harmonious silence of heaven…” Lesnick deliberates, then surreptitiously commences. Solemn ethereality whirls, glissandi ripple in the cello, imitation chatters.

Messiaen’s work features extended solos for three-quarters of the ensemble (sorry pianists). Abyss of the Birds is the clarinetist’s chance to dazzle. Lesnick again takes a long time to begin; the delay builds in anticipation. Mysterious gloom meanders in the throat register, well supported, yet with suitable wavers. Lesnick draws crescendos from absolute silence, gradually increasing in intensity until a full force pings throughout the loft. These dark emergences are especially nerve wracking on the instrument’s resistant notes. The A above the staff is one of those hazardous sticklers, but Lesnick executes with impressive control – his dynamic contrasts feel severe and visceral: he has achieved technical mastery.

The cello demands attention in Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Joyner executes an electrified, albeit languid line. Time as concept recedes – faint, foreign, and distant. Joyner searches with despair, the pianist – Fleitz – consoles. Clean legato connections imbue the melody with pristine clarity. Heavenly vibrato deepens the sorrow. Why such misery for the opening of Genesis? Does this depict a conflict in Messiaen’s mission? But wait, the atmosphere transforms; it teeters toward beauty. Fleitz crescendos, enriches the harmony. Joyner joins; they express sanguine sublimity together. “Let there be light”: the promise and joy of creation.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps parts with a eulogy. It targets Jesus the man, “the being made divine towards Paradise.” The violin recalls the cello feature; long lines feel withdrawn and forlorn, audience attention centers on pitch succession. The piano accompaniment knocks with insistence. Light refracts; the sinews twist outward, ceaselessly. Imagery evokes the quartet’s title; the music conveys the extermination of time. Lesnick and Joyner close their eyes and listen. Is this a shared religious experience? Messiaen would give his blessing.